A consortium of Japanese organisations led by NTT Docomo earmarked $100 million to Airbus solar-powered high-altitude platform stations subsidiary Aalto HAPS, targeting a launch of connectivity and earth observation services in Japan and other markets in 2026.

The investment was made through the consortium’s investment vehicle HAPS Japan and kicks off a strategic alliance to commercialise the services using HAPS in Japan and across Asia, Docomo explained in a statement.

Space Compass, Mizuho Bank and the Development Bank of Japan also are part of the consortium.

Docomo added Aalto HAPS’ Zephyr aircraft can fly in the stratosphere for months at a time, operating as a multi-function tower in the sky to deliver low-latency direct-to-device 5G connectivity. Using Airbus’ earth observation service Strat-Observer, the craft can also carry out a range of monitoring, tracking, sensing and detection applications. 

Aalto HAPS CEO Samer Halawi noted the investment comes as it moves into the next phase of development, including instigating several customer missions over the coming year, establishing launch and landing sites for Zephyr, and advancing its certification process.

Docomo CTO Takaaki Sato said the HAPS-based non-terrestrial network (NTN) technology combines “unique cutting-edge engineering with economics that are aligned to expand coverage to rural and remote areas”.

Shigehiro Hori, co-CEO of Space Compass, stated Japan’s many remote islands and mountainous areas are uneconomical to connect, adding its strategic relationship with Aalto HAPS would help it “build a new telecommunications infrastructure in these areas and during an era of population decline”.

Marc Einstein, chief analyst at research company ITR, told Mobile World Live it is a bold move by Docomo, which has selected HAPS as a key NTN technology whereas most operators including domestic rivals are more focused on satellite connectivity.

“While the economics of HAPS remain uncertain, the technology does have some advantages over satellites as the aircraft fly lower to the ground, provide higher bandwidth speeds and can more easily target specific areas.”

Einstein added the technology will be welcome in Japan as 5G coverage even in central Tokyo often “leaves much to be desired, let alone in rural areas”, noting mountains cover 80 per cent of Japan’s landmass.

In December 2023, Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology selected Docomo, NTT, Space Compass and Sky Perfect JSAT to develop direct-to-device mobile services using HAPS.